Earlier this month, hundreds of small farmers from dozens of countries gathered in Jakarta, Indonesia for the 6th International Congress of the Via Campesina.
So what? Why should it matter to those of us here in the U.S., or even to peasants and indigenous people worldwide, that this group of women and men, youth and elders got together for a week of singing, chanting, meeting, talking and strategizing? Here are five reasons (among many) why this gathering – and other learning and organizing exchanges – matter: 1. This is where change comes from. Real and just solutions to global problems will not come from the top and trickle down to better the lives of those on the bottom. Instead, individuals and communities have to build them based on specific local needs. Governments – including the democratic and progressive ones – will not deliver those solutions without the pressure of organized people. The people represented at the Via Campesina’s global conference offer real and meaningful solutions to many of the problems created by the big global players. For instance, by supporting sustainable small-scale farming we can not only feed more people but cool the climate. So which offers a better hope for the future: International trade policies that subsidize and favor chemical agricultural firms like Monsanto and plantation-scale farms, or local farms that provide food and livelihoods and dignity to millions of farmers worldwide? If you believe that the local farms and sustainable livelihoods option is the way to go, then add your voice to the call for agricultural and economic justice. We know that the war chest of agribusiness is big, but lacks heart. If your option is the latter, it means that you, your family and community have to organize to change things for the best, because corporate-driven industrial agriculture will not let that happen without a fight. Change happens when activists, consumers and farmers work together to bring it about. 2. It’s the system, stupid. Whether in Brazil or Mozambique or Canada or Korea, farmers and other small producers face the same squeeze as their urban counterparts. Profit-first capitalism exacts growth-dependent and unsustainable income from the earth and the people on it. In the words of the Jakarta Call coming out of the most recent Via Campesina conference: The destruction of our world, through overexploitation and dispossession of people and the appropriation of natural resources is resulting in the current climate crisis and deep inequalities which endanger human kind and life itself. La Vía Campesina says a resounding NO to this corporate-driven destruction. We call on our organizations, allies, friends, and all those committed to a better future to reject the ‘green economy’ and build food sovereignty. The overall system is broken, and only a global and integrated movement can offer a meaningful way forward. Movements like that represented by the Via Campesina and its member organizations practice alternative systems and challenge the dominant one to change. 3. We live on one earth. The current and looming economic and social crises will only be exacerbated by corporations’ hijacking of government policies. The answer thus far from the powerful World Bank and international trade policies is to race faster to extract more fuel sources from more places. Fracking. Drilling the Arctic. Squeezing oil from palm trees or sugar cane plantations that require more chemicals and fuel to grow than they actually produce. Privatizing water resources and commodifying air through carbon offset trading. Those who make those decisions do not speak for the entirety of the planet that will be affected. More and more people are refusing to idly observe the plundering of Mother Earth. More and more small farmers, indigenous groups, women and youth recognize their common struggles on this one earth and are choosing to work together to implement sustainable and life-affirming practices. And it is those very practices that offer solutions that will benefit everyone by minimizing damage, restoring top soil, saving biodiverse seeds, protecting water systems and acknowledging our interconnectedness to one another and the planet. 4. We are stronger together than apart. When Maria dos Santos and her family were pushed off their land in the northeast of Brazil to make way for a sugar cane plantation, their lives changed. Instead of growing their own food, her husband worked the sugar cane fields, inhaling toxic chemicals while doing back-breaking labor. The family was left sick, hungry and seemingly without options. Now Maria and her husband Rubem, a former sugar cane cutter, manage a thriving vegetable garden that provides food for themselves and their community – 13 different crops amidst a green desert of sugar cane. As members of the Landless Workers Movements, which is itself a member organization of the Via Campesina, Maria and Rubem have settled on land, restored the soil transformed their lives and livelihoods. They earn more than $450 US (well above two minimum wage salaries). The secret is the technical support that he and his wife received as part of the larger movement for food sovereignty and agrarian reform. “The biggest challenge in agrarian reform is the lack of technical support for rural families,” Rubem said. “[N]ew farmers like me do not have access to funds. People are unable to make investments in the land. We need a sustainable agriculture policy to help small farmers like me.” And that’s where a movement comes into play –to change policies so that farmers like Rubem and Maria can survive and thrive. And that’s why nearly 200 million small farmers and producers like Rubem and Maria are part of the Via Campesina across 80 countries. 5. It’s more fun. The poet Wendell Berry wrote, “be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” Well, the facts of climate change, wealth disparity and global threats can be quite bummer-inducing. But that’s not the end of the story. There are reasons to be joyful. The Via Campesina gathering brings together hundreds of some of the poorest, most disenfranchised and theoretically down-trodden people on earth. Their futures teeter precariously between survival and obliteration. And yet they danced and sang and laughed because they know the movement, with their future leadership, will continue to push forward. Emma Goodman would be pleased that they are dancing while they are working for the revolution.